As a temporary “Black Lives Matter” street mural continues to put Martinez’s discussions about racism in the national spotlight, its City Council has approved establishing a citizen task force to help guide the city’s responses to issues of race, gender and equality in general.
At a special meeting last week, the City Council also directed the city’s Park, Recreation, Marina and Cultural Commission to create a more formal process for approving art on the city’s streets.
In addition, it was revealed that there are plans for a permanent “Black Lives Matter” artwork on the side of a downtown building. Mayor Rob Schroder said it is early in the process for that; neither he nor Councilman Mark Ross would say where it will be, other than in a “prominent, appropriate place.”
The permit for the Black Lives Matter mural painted July 4 on Court Street in front of the Taylor Wakefield Courthouse was fast-tracked through the established process for public art installations, and went through neither the Park, Recreation, Marina and Cultural Commission nor the City Council.
While City Manager Eric Figueroa and council members said the fast-tracking was appropriate in this instance, especially given that it is temporary, they recognize more similar requests are sure to come up. City officials said there had never been a request for any sort of street art before in Martinez, and that there is no specific process for it.
While most people calling in to the council meeting defended the mural and its fast-tracking, others said its approval should mean opposing viewpoints should be given time on the city’s streets.
“It’s a political mural — it has no business on our streets,” one man told the council. “If we can do political messages on Court Street, I can come down and write ‘Make America Great Again,’ how about that, right in front of the other courthouse.”
But council members said they view Black Lives Matter — the message, if not the organization — as a human rights issue, and not a political statement. And Martinez City Attorney Jeff Walter said the city has no obligation to present opposing viewpoints to its own.
Walter said, “A government entity has a right to speak for itself; it is entitled to say what it wishes, and select the views that it wants to express.”
Ross said he had received an email suggesting the city could be sued for not allowing a street mural with a message contrary to Black Lives Matter; Walter said he doesn’t believe such a suit would have merit.
At the council’s July 15 meeting, dozens of speakers told the council they support the idea of what was billed as a “Task Force on Equity and Inclusion.” Several speakers this past Wednesday wanted its name, and function, to be more action-oriented — they favor “Anti-Racism Task Force.”
Though some commenters suggested the five white council members should not necessarily be the ones to choose the task force’s nine members, Ross said the council will ultimately make the decisions. But he welcomes community help with creating the task force.
“We all have blind spots, and we don’t know what they are until somebody points them out to us,” he said.
Several commenters said depictions of Martinez as a racist city are inaccurate, but others said they believe otherwise.
Rick Grand-Lejano said the June 28 discovery of two “white power” fliers, the defacing of the BLM mural by a man and a woman hours after it was finished, and the arrest of a man suspected of threatening a mural defender with a loaded handgun “really did send a frightful message to us” who are people of color.
“What would send a stronger message … to say to people in that same camp, is that this city is serious about anti-racism,” Grand-Lejano said.